***Deceits of Borneo

hong kong, woman traveler

(photo: ksobolev0, pixabay)

By H.N. Wake – This is the second full-length thriller by H.N. Wake and a repeat outing for her gutsy female protagonist, CIA Agent Mac Ambrose. (Read my interview with H.N. Wake to find out what she loves about this character.) The action takes place in Hong Kong and various spots in Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur, Miri, and the rain forests of Sarawak Province—with occasional scenes back at the CIA mothership in Langley, Virginia. Wake’s familiarity with Asia and Southeast Asia, gained during more than 20 years’ working overseas for the U.S. government, stands her in good stead here, as the ease and detail with which she describes these lush locales effectively transport the reader right into the setting.

Mac is deep under cover in Hong Kong, at a new job in the Risk Analysis department of a major international financial institution called Legion Bank, and her real identity is known only to one of the bank’s executives. When another Non-Official Cover CIA agent—Josh Halloway—goes missing out of Kuala Lumpur, Mac’s boss back in Langley tells her to find him.

Gradually we learn her concern about Halloway’s disappearance is not just collegial solidarity, it’s also personal. Halloway is handsome, charming, and intriguing, and they’d met and connected in Hong Kong. Mac was falling for him. The Bank provides cover for her search, when she’s assigned to the risk appraisal of a potential Malaysian client, Alghaba Financing, a major player in Malaysia’s timber and palm oil industries. If the bank takes the company on, it will receive millions of dollars in fees.

Given the opportunity to kill two birds at once, Mac flies to the Malaysian capital. When she checks in with the U.S. Embassy, she finds the ambassador has a chip on his shoulder the size of a teak log and is unwilling to help her. Evidence on the ground is scant, but Mac picks up Halloway’s trail, and the game is literally afoot in the jungles of Borneo. Wake’s choice of a female protagonist with the investigatory skills, cunning, and physical courage to undertake her next steps make this a refreshing antidote to the overdose of testosterone in many thrillers.

However, the goings-on back at Langley aren’t as persuasive. They add complication and some coincidence that detract from the main story. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how people in the field always regard the folks back at the main office: “What are they thinking?” At times Mac’s own behavior is a bit murky. She frequently presses a little too hard in trying to get information from a potential informant, and I never did figure out how she got the key to Josh’s room at the Miri Beach Resort.

What Mac discovers in the rain forest, the lengths people will go to keep her discovery a secret, and the fate of Josh Halloway are the key questions of this compelling story. Wake knows how to put together an exciting narrative, an exotic and interesting setting, and believable characters. H.N. Wake is an exciting new author worth tracking.

A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.